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Apps are breaking free

When Applications became Apps

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The launch of Apple’s iPhone had a huge impact on the way in which we consume information. There were many innovations which contributed to that success, but a key aspect came in the form of the App Store. Microsoft Windows enjoyed success by encouraging developers to create software for their platform, but those applications were cumbersome to install and offered an inconsistent experience.

The App Store fixed those problems overnight.

Following its launch, Steve Jobs admitted that Apple “didn’t expect it to be this big”. Apple had stumbled on a way to make applications exciting – by offering engaging “apps” from a one-stop-shop, which in itself was easy to explore and use.  The App Store reached 1 billion downloads in 2009 and quickly doubled down on implementing a commercial model around the store which now makes many tens of billions of dollars each year worldwide.

Apps are breaking free - Thrive Learning

App stores break the user journey

These days we don’t think twice about where to search for an app, and to a large extent our expectations are firmly fixed in that we’ll need to visit an app store if we want to regularly use a service. However, while consumer expectations may be set, there are growing problems with the App Store approach. One key concern is the barrier to adoption.

If you’re a tech business with a focus on delivering an awesome mobile app, you’ll need to direct users from your website across to your app on the its, and then keep your fingers crossed that they follow the installation process and re-emerge on the other end of the App Store. When asked to install an app, only 9% of visitors continued to the promoted app, while a massive 69% of visitors immediately left the site.

This sounds fairly reasonable to us because that’s what we’ve come to expect, but all indications are that there is a massive impact on users when they’re asked to install an app. In 2015 a Google employee shared their findings that only 9% of visitors continued to the promoted app, while a massive 69% of visitors immediately left the site. According to a more recent survey in the US from ComScore, apps are stagnating; their research suggests 51% of smartphone users installed an average of zero apps per month!

The problem seems to be that by suggesting they install a native app, the user infers that the website must be unusable on mobile. Since many users simply don’t want to install a new app, they come to the conclusion that the service isn’t worth the effort and give up.

51% of users downloaded 0 apps per month

If your learning platform is prompting users to install an app today, the evidence suggests you might be putting off seven times as many users as you are engaging. 

SMEs are worst hit

Small to medium enterprises are faced with a double whammy in this regard. Most organisations in this category do not have the resources to maintain a corporate app store for their staff and do not maintain a fleet of business-use smart devices for every member of staff.

As a result they’re dependant on publishing their internal services to the App Store or Google’s Play Store, and at this point can often be in for a nasty surprise.

Apple in particular have tightened the rules around publishing of apps intended for use by an organisation’s employees and will refuse to publish them. Put simply they want the App Store to focus on consumers and paid-for services.

This position makes it very difficult for SMEs to develop and share bespoke applications for their workforce. It means offering a truly multi-device learning solution becomes extremely problematic.

The web strikes back

Back in 2008, the worldwide web lost out to apps because it couldn’t offer anywhere near the level of functionality and polish that a native app could. If you wanted it to work offline you needed a native app. If you wanted it to have an icon on your home screen, you needed a native app. If you wanted push notifications and actions, you needed a native app.

It is somewhat ironic that the web was already great at allowing open publishing and easy access way before the phrase “there’s an app for that” was ever thought of. People are familiar with the way the web works and will visit a website far more readily than they will install an app.

In 2015, designer Frances Berriman and Google Chrome engineer Alex Russell told the world about their concept of “Progressive Web Applications”. They envisaged a web application which could provide the functionality we associate with Native Apps in a web-compatible form.

Where native apps needed to be moderated, published and downloaded from an App Store, progressive web apps could be accessed just like a normal web page, and immediately enrich the experience of all users on smart devices.

No downloads. No hurdles. No disrupted user experience. Just seamless interaction.

The PWA way

A progressive web application differs from what you would think of as a web page in several key ways:

It runs locally and can be cached, meaning performance is much improved and returning visits load almost as fast as a native app. It can also run offline, meaning services can be accessed without an active internet connection.

They have an icon in the app tray like a normal native app, so can be accessed in a very familiar way. When a web app is accessed in this way it loads full screen and appears without the traditional “web browser” user interface.  It can do things without being in the foreground, allowing functionality to be triggered without user involvement at key points such as an internet connection being restored. Finally, a progressive web app can make use of latest web technologies such as push notifications or virtual reality support in order to offer a near-native experience.

The revolution has begun

The concept has already caught on in a big way. Major services like Twitter and Pinterest have already rolled out PWAs and are seeing massive improvements in engagement.

Pinterest progressive web apps stats

Device support is also well established, with the both Microsoft Windows and Chromebooksfocusing heavily of PWAs.

Android has had full support for progressive web applications since 2016, and Apple is finally getting into the game with the release of iOS 12 this year.

With iOS onboard, we can expect to see a big shift in the next 12 to 18 months. Native applications will be reserved for truly complex features and experiences, while less complex apps will move away from the app store and be downloaded directly from the web.

Thrive ❤ PWA

We’re fortunate enough to have been developing our tools and platform at a time where progressive web applications are becoming mainstream. As a result we’ve been able to build our user interfaces with a PWA mindset from day one. On devices that support it, our platform user interface will take advantage of many features a progressive web application offers, including offline access to the platform, push notifications and background processing (allowing tracking of learner activity even without a connection).

We still love native apps too; after all not everyone has got the latest smart-devices, however we’re focused on ensuring that the web interface we offer works as well as a native app for mobile users, ensuring that everyone’s experience is simple and seamless. We’re excited to show you what we’re building over the coming months!

Mark Ward is CTO at Thrive Learning and has ten years’ experience working in the Learning Technologies space. He is passionate about creating learning tools that real world, every-day users find intuitive and indispensable for their roles.

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